When Femininity and Complexity Mingle

Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women is a collection of 21 short stories featuring women from all walks of life. The book touches on the themes of violence, gender roles, and sexuality, with some stories include elements of magic realism. As I was fresh off of reading Bad Feminist, Gay’s collection of essays detailing her thoughts on modern feminism coupled with social commentary on the portrayal of women in the media and literature, I was excited and eager to jump into Difficult Women. However, after completing the latter, I notice that I much prefer Gay’s writing style for her non-fiction work. Though the fiction stories featured a host of women in different situations, such as a biracial college student who works the pole at night to fund her education, a pair of sisters who leave their home state to escape an unimaginably sexually violent past, a black university professor exploring her new life in Michigan and others, I was put off from the constant repetition of phrases and themes in the book. Phrases such as “flat of her stomach” or themes such as men rubbing their hands over the women’s knuckles or the resurgence of twins in her writing. Although I found each story interesting in their own right, I felt that having them compiled together in a book of short stories took away from the impact each story would have standing alone. Having many of the stories echoing elements of each other would have been better served in one long-form story tackling issues of sex, rape and women’s identities and roles.

Despite this, the book does well as it delves into the minds of the narrators, illuminating those forbidden thoughts and desires women may have yet never spoken of, such as a desire to be beaten, or contempt for a child. The overriding theme, however, is the strength these difficult women possess – the strength to endure pain and loss, the strength to bend the rules, the strength to play along, the strength to ignore. Each female character takes agency of their bodies and exhibits sometimes quiet or sometimes overt strength. Although I do not have a favorite story in the set, I do quite like the longer pieces which do a great job of capturing the grander story and beauty behind seemingly simple existences, such as in North Country, where the life of the new-to-town college professor is catalogued as she bears the cold and isolation of her new home while falling in love.

I read the book over the course of four days, and in hindsight, I think that reading the book all in one go did me a disservice and hindered my ability to appreciate the text for all its worth. I would recommend reading the book leisurely and pausing between each story, allowing space to really absorb each tale, before getting lost in the new cosmos that follows.

Overall, I commend the book for its portrayal of various cross-sections of female life, the detailed imagery and the topics it tackles, but knock off points for the constant repetition. I will also say that many of the deeper meanings in the stories dealing with magic realism, such as Water, All Its Weight and I Am a Knife, were lost on me, which probably contributes to my mediocre rating of the text. However, I do believe it is worth reading as Gay is a prolific writer and offers a unique perspective on women and women’s issues, especially in Trump-era America.

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